Barbara Martin, a postdoctoral researcher at Basel University and associate of the Soviet Research Lab, presented on September 27 her newly-published book Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). This book is based on her doctoral research at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, under the supervision of Prof. Andre Liebich.
Starting with the well-known case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was expulsed from the Soviet Union in February 1974 for the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, Barbara Martin introduced the four main figures of her research: in addition to Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), she focused on the dissident historians Aleksandr Nekrich (1920-1993), Roy Medvedev (born 1925) and Anton Antonov-Ovseenko (1920-2013). These four figures of Soviet dissent all endeavored in their own way to reveal the “historical truth” about the crimes of the Stalin era and produced historical research on the subject, which they published in the West. For their daring feat, they risked repression and had to endure countless threats and pressure, house searches, exclusion from print in the USSR, and, for two of them, emigration.
In order to understand what led these authors to embrace activism at great personal risk, Barbara Martin provided in the first part of her talk an overview of the historical context of the post-Stalin era, from the de-Stalinization policy launched by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 to the reversal of this policy under Brezhnev, from 1965 onwards. While Medvedev, Antonov-Ovseenko or Nekrich had sought to inscribe their research within the Communist Party’s de-Stalinization course, under Brezhnev they increasingly drifted into dissent. Solzhenitsyn, who had been acclaimed for his first novella on the Gulag One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) also had to publish his following novels in the West, starting from 1968.
In the second part of her talk, Barbara Martin explored the question of the sources used by dissident researchers to make up for the lack of access to archival documents. A central role was played by oral testimonies of witnesses of the Stalin era: Gulag prisoners, for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and old Bolsheviks (veterans of the Revolution and Civil war who had occupied high positions in the Communist apparatus before being repressed) for Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko. In addition, journal and newspaper articles published during the short-lived period of de-Stalinization or during the 1920s were used, along with unpublished memoirs and other manuscripts that dissident researchers were granted access to.
In the third part, Barbara Martin focused on dissident authors’ claim to restore “historical truth”. While attempts at rehabilitating Stalin in the Soviet media in the late 1960s was a potent factor for anti-Stalinist protests and the publication of dissident histories, there was more than one conception of historical truth. The political commitments of these authors were a first hurdle towards a united narrative about the Stalin era: for Medvedev, Stalinism was a disease that had affected the Soviet system, but which could be cured through careful analysis of past crimes and reform of the regime; for Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, political repression as had occurred under Stalin was the logical consequence of the October Revolution. Dissident researchers were also criticized by professional historians – or by each other – for the lack of accuracy of some of the facts collected. In addition, the non-scientific format of their works, which often mixed literary and historical genres with autobiographical segments, was puzzling to many readers. However, dissident researchers did not seek to stick to traditional historiographical conventions and embraced their large creative freedom, which allowed them to use whatever literary means they had at their disposal to best convey their message to readers. Moreover, some, like Antonov-Ovseenko, considered objectivity not only impossible to achieve for those who had personally suffered from the Stalin era, but also undesirable when dealing with the history of Stalin’s crimes.
The discussion raised such important question as the ability of the historian to be objective or the parallels between past and current attitudes towards Stalin in Russian society.